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‘Hidden Figures’ a perfect launch

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Drama reveals some of the Space Race's unsung heroes

History is filled with unsung heroes.

The stories of many of those people – people whose contributions to the world have been integral – are largely lost to the passage of time. But as the world changes and we revisit past events, sometimes we uncover tales of uncelebrated greatness.

That’s what the new film “Hidden Figures” – a tale of the under-the-radar brilliance that put an American into space and ultimately led to victory in the race to the moon. It’s the story of three black women whose work was key to the success of NASA’s quest to reach space in the early 1960s, but whose untimely combination of color and gender led to them largely being relegated to historical footnotes.

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, TV’s “Empire”) is a brilliant mathematical mind working as a computer in the still-segregated Virginia-based NASA during the early days of the space race. She – along with her friends and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, “Bad Santa 2”) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, “Moonlight”) – is one of the most gifted minds in the entire place, but all three are seen as lesser due to their gender and the color of their skin.

But as the race against the Russians heats up, each woman starts to become a more integral part of the effort. Dorothy is a de facto supervisor even though the higher-ups won’t actually promote her; she’s also becoming familiar with a massive new addition courtesy of IBM. Mary is urged by the space capsule design team to pursue engineering despite the many obstacles – personal and professional – that path presents.

And Katherine winds up in the room with the team tasked with actually figuring out the math for getting into space. The boss is Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, “Criminal”), a guy who is color-blind in a way that’s less about social justice and more about caring solely about space rockets, but some of the other folks – specifically Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”) – question Katherine’s abilities.

In truth, the realities of the segregated South constantly confront all three of them. However, their combination of genius, dedication and courage lead them all to places where – despite the myriad forces turned against them – they all contribute mightily to the cause. If NASA is to breach the barrier of the heavens, they’ll need all hands on deck … particularly those as gifted as this trio.

“Hidden Figures” is the best kind of historical film for me – one that told me a story with which I was largely unfamiliar. Like some, I had heard bits and pieces and had a sketchy idea about this particular time and place, but in truth, this movie served as my introduction to some incredible women whose impressive contributions never made it into my history book.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is compelling as hell. Anyone with any sort of interest in that time – and the Cold War Space Race against Russia is one of the most fascinating parts of 20th century American history – is going to be drawn in. “Hidden Figures” is about the lives of these three women, yes, but it is also about the greater goal – the world-changing goal – of achieving the stars.

To be sure, this film isn’t “history.” One imagines that the struggles Katherine, Dorothy and Mary went through were perhaps a bit uglier than they are portrayed here. Still, the overall sense is one of general accuracy, with some dramatic license taken in terms of the specifics. Director Theodore Melfi (who also co-wrote the screenplay – based on Margot Lee Shetterley’s book of the same name - with Allison Schroeder) does a good job of letting the narrative do the heavy lifting; he’s got a nicely retro eye, though one could argue the end result feels a touch sanitized.

Still, it’s the trio of performances at the film’s center that really makes “Hidden Figures” soar. Henson might be best known for the over-the-top soapiness she brings to “Empire,” but she’s found a muse with Katherine – she gives a restrained and subtle performance that never feels less than genuine. Spencer – who is literally ALWAYS good, even in less-than-stellar material – has been given something to work with here and she takes advantage. The brusque capability of Dorothy – combined with an underlying sentimentality – is a perfect fit for an actor of Spencer’s talents. And Janelle Monae continues to surprise – she brings a beautiful sarcasm to Mary that feels just right for such a bold and confident character. Between this and “Moonlight,” Monae is definitely on the rise.

Harrison is the sort of workmanlike role that should be Kevin Costner’s focus; there’s an old-school vibe to him that allows him to fit perfectly in this world of white-shirted wonks. Parsons is fine as Stafford, though you never get the sense that he’s really committed to the worldview he’s supposedly portraying. Other supporting turns range from good (Powell, Kirsten Dunst) to great (Mahershala Ali, who is going to win an Oscar for being even better than this in “Moonlight”).

“Hidden Figures” is a chance to revisit history that had long been glossed over, to learn a bit about important people lost in the wake of the ever-forward progress of time. These people contributed to one of the greatest feats in human history … and now we know their names.

So let’s remember them, shall we?

[5 out of 5]

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